Donna Macdonald was a Nelson city councillor for 19 years. File photo

COLUMN: Who’s in the big chair and why it matters

Donna Macdonald’s column on civic politics

I recently realized that in the past 17 months of writing this column, I have neglected something important. And that’s the so-called big chair or, more accurately, the person who gets to sit there, the mayor. That chair is also called the hot seat, of course.

Election campaigns often focus on the mayoral race, largely because we think the mayor is very important, the key person on a city council. But as you’ll see, this may not be entirely true.

I’ll start with a fun fact. Did you know that in B.C. (and across Canada) we have weak mayors? That’s not my personal judgment, by the way, but how our political system describes them. What that means is that mayors are not given any significant powers that they can wield, independent of their councils.

Mayors are given additional responsibilities, such as presiding at meetings, bringing forward policy recommendations, and providing direction to staff on implementation of council decisions. The mayor is also the spokesperson for council, relaying those decisions to the public, and generally being the voice of the community to the outside world.

A special power that people often think mayors have is voting to break a tie. Not true. The mayor is a member of council and the same voting rules apply to everyone. If you’re sitting at the council table, you are voting every time on every question. If you don’t raise your hand in favour or against, you will be counted as in favour. There is no abstention. The only way to avoid voting is to declare a conflict of interest and physically leave the council chambers.

I’ve seen mayors duck criticism by saying to the angry resident, oh, I agree, that was council’s decision, tsk tsk. The inference is that the mayor sits above the fray and has to bear the results of bad decisions by council. On the contrary, mayors often don’t indicate their votes, but they are still voting.

The power or influence a mayor wields really comes from the force or charm of their personality, and their ability to persuade others of the value of their ideas. Which, really, is the same for all council members. In fact, I would argue that the role of the mayor is not to argue for their position but to assist council in reaching a decision.

I worked with one mayor who was really good at offering thoughtful compromises that helped council rise above the morass of circular, interminable arguments. He used his influence as the meeting chair to assist council in coming to good decisions. He was a facilitator, not a dominator.

If the mayors want to participate in a discussion, they need to “pass the gavel” to someone else. They shouldn’t hold tight to it, using it to dominate the conversation and hopefully get their way, as some mayors tend to do.

Presiding at meetings is a complex skill. Robert’s Rules rule, but there’s so much more to chairing a successful meeting. It’s about understanding your role as leader of the community and of council. It’s important to foster a respectful, orderly and thoughtful approach to debates. And it’s critical to forbid personal attacks.

Here’s the kind of mayor I’ll be looking for come the October election. Someone who reinforces and models the importance of respect, on council and in the community. A person who values diverse opinions and really listens to them, and who’s committed to facilitating solid decision-making. Someone who is curious, compassionate and honest and who has confidence in our community.

Some of those traits are reflected in the work of the provincial-level Working Group on Responsible Conduct, focused on local government. They defined four foundational principles for good conduct: integrity, respect, accountability, and leadership and collaboration. The group recently developed a model code of conduct that local governments can use to develop their own.

These codes can’t just be words on a piece of paper. Once adopted, they should be living guidelines, expressing the shared expectations of behaviour for councils and regional boards, among themselves and with their community members. The codes should be visible at every council meeting.

As we celebrate Canada Day this weekend, we’ll ponder the kind of country we want and the leadership needed to get us there. Responsible conduct can filter from council tables through our communities, into provincial governments, and then to the federal government. At least, that’s my good governance dream for Canada.

Donna Macdonald served 19 years on Nelson City Council until 2014. She is the author of Surviving City Hall, published in 2016.

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